Books Can Heal: Bibliotherapy and The Effect of Reading on the Brain

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Reading on the brain: is bibliotherapy good
for our health? Image source.

I’m certain that reading has had a positive effect on my brain, my health and the way I live my life.

I often encourage readers to find positive books to help their wellbeing, problem-solving abilities and attitude to life, but it’s worth thinking about the science behind bibliotherapy.

Can books really heal and help the brain? Can they help us feel healthy and live a happy life? This is something that I covered briefly in my ebook, but I think it most definitely deserves a place here on the blog!

Reading has a positive effect on our health

Reading reduces stress levels by 67%, and a 2003 study also claims that reading can reduce the risk of dementia by up to 35%. So, by spending time with a great novel, you are not only helping yourself feel happy and relaxed, you are also looking out for your future elderly self.

Books help us to understand society and live our life fully

Dr. Keith Oatley (both professor and published novelist) has noted that fiction is a useful ‘simulation’ to help us deal with the challenging and confusing social world around us.

Based on his studies of brain scans, literature can teach us how to live our lives the best we can, guiding us in the same way as if a computer simulation would teach us to fly a plane. This makes sense of all the times we’ve felt instructed or illuminated by a novel, comparing ourselves to the bold Elizabeth Bennett or the ungrateful Ebenezer Scrooge.

As fiction can help us through life by acting as a simulation of real-life situations, reading really can improve us as human beings, it seems. What better way to grow up and mature through life than accompanied by great novels to show us the way?

Reading can change our behaviour to match characters

When you “lose yourself” inside the world of a fictional character, you may actually end up changing your own behaviour and thoughts to match that of the character.

In one experiment, researchers examined what happened to people who, while reading a fictional story, found themselves feeling the emotions, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses of one of the characters as if they were their own – a phenomenon the researchers call “experience-taking.”

They found that, in the right situations, experience-taking may lead to real changes, even if only temporary, in the lives of readers.

For instance, readers who strongly identified with a fictional character who overcame obstacles to vote were significantly more likely to vote in a real election several days later.

Let’s find our fiction prescriptions!

Isn’t it great to think that we can read about inspirational characters and make positive changes in our own lives as a result?

Personally, I’ve gained so much courage from reading great books. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is a book I’ve praised so much – particularly in relation to my PTSD and anxiety – and Tennyson’s “Ulysses” has helped me remain “strong in will” when dealing with my past. Recently, Sarah Moss’s wonderful tale of her time in Iceland in Names for the Sea has calmed me down while I’ve been undergoing changes in work.

On top of the fact that reading can improve our health, understand society a little better and also feel calmer, this makes me so keen to pick up a book.

Could a book a week be the prescription that we’re all in need of?

Do you feel that reading has affected your brain and health in a positive way? I’m excited to see what science reveals about bibliotherapy in years to come!


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It's good to meet you! I started Tolstoy Therapy back in 2012 to share my healing journey through anxiety and PTSD with books. I also climb mountains, go on solo adventures, and write over at

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